Profs Seek Student Input to Improve Online Courses

It is late in the evening and the house is finally quiet. This is the time when Cathy Walsh transforms from a mother, a grandmother, a caregiver to her elderly mom, and a fulltime employee, into a Kent State University online student.

Walsh is majoring in organizational communication with a minor in public communication in the College of Communication and Information at Kent State.

She takes as many as three online courses a semester. Balancing home, work and school is not easy, but Cathy is determined to complete her degree.

“I appreciate the flexibility that online classes offer me, and my family does too,” Walsh said. “I am able to schedule my class time and course work around my other commitments which makes getting my degree so much more convenient. If I had to attend every class in person, I may only be able to handle one class each semester.”

In an effort to better reach a growing number of online students like Cathy, some Kent State professors are turning to students and to online faculty for input in helping design quality courses that are engaging and promote learning to new levels.


Bethany Simunich, Ph.D., director of online pedagogy and research at Kent State, wanted to hear what undergraduates had to say about online courses. Simunich conducted a written survey over several semesters.  Over 250 students took part.

Among many discoveries, Simunich found two surprising. First, students say that online classes are a lot more work than a traditional face-to-face class. Secondly, students miss their professors.

“They miss interacting with the professor,” Simunich said. “They miss having that additional guidance through the course work and getting feedback and help from the professor.”

The gap between the student and professor is often referred to as transactional distance.  It can include both a geographic and a time distance. If students do not get over that barrier, they are less likely to interact in the online class.

“Without instruction, students feel like they’re floating in cyber space alone, Simunich said. “We need to bridge that gap by considering the design of the course.”


Designing online courses is nothing new to Belinda Boon, Ph.D., assistant professor in the School of Library and Information Science. Boon teaches nine online classes per year.

“Most of us came into this with no idea how to teach online,” Boon said. “We developed skills in the classroom over time and now we have to transition from being a good teacher in the classroom to being a good teacher online.”

In her quest to best make that transition, Boon developed a study based on existing research. She surveyed 60 full and part-time faculty.

She found that students succeed most in online courses when professors first establish a social presence. Boon says it is vital to connect with students early in the course, communicate with them on a personal level, and get to know them.

Secondly, Boon’s study found the importance of presenting a cognitive presence. This includes weekly instruction and providing content that encourages students to interact.

Thirdly, the research points to the need to establish a teaching presence; meaning they introduced themselves as the facilitator who is there to guide students through the class.

“Once people get acquainted with you they feel more comfortable asking questions and interacting,” Boon said.

Growing Online Courses

Simunich and Boon agree that online learning is here to stay for the sheer convenience of it. The growing enrollment numbers at Kent State are a glaring example of the need to intermix academic advancement with hectic lifestyles.

According to Valerie Kelly, executive director of Kent State Online in the Office of Continuing and Distance Education, there are 16,000 students taking at least one online class at Kent State, which is equivalent to 40 percent of the student population.  Online enrollment is at an all time high, increasing 900 percent from spring 2009 to spring 2014.

Kelly says that nationally, one-third of students taking online courses have a part time job or two. Many are working toward degrees that they never completed. Others are brushing up on classes to advance their careers. Many traditional students living on campus are also taking an online class to help meet requirements for gradation.

“Online courses are convenient for students,” Simunich said. “They find they can schedule them around their job, their family and around face-to-face classes.”

With the influx of students, come a growing number of online course offerings. According to statistics from Kent State Online, this year the Kent Campus alone is offering 677 online classes.  System-wide, Kent State is offering 1208 online courses.

“The focus now is on quality rather than quantity,” Kelly said. “Online courses are entering a new generation of sophistication. The emphasis is on using the digital environment to promote more engagement and better learning opportunities. Students often sign up for an online course because of convenience, but end up taking more because they had a good learning experience.”

Putting Survey Results into Practice

Walsh is familiar with the evolution of online classes. In addition to taking them, she also works as a special assistant in the Office of Continuing & Distance Education at Kent State.

From a student perspective, Walsh finds it essential for instructors of online classes to reach through cyberspace and make a connection. She recalls a favorite class in which the professor responded to every discussion post Walsh made.

“By the end of the semester, I felt like we had a true relationship and she cared that I succeed and really learned the material,” Walsh said. “I know it takes more time and commitment, but it meant a lot to me. It is very easy for an online class to lose any sense of a personal connection between students and the instructor.”

Walsh is on course to graduate in 2017. She says online classes are not the only way to complete her degree, but it is her preference when it comes to juggling family and career.